Peter the Great, born in 1672, was handsome and strong, described as being six and a half feet tall. He was a good craftsman, worked with his hands, and was a natural athlete. Sounds like the stuff of a girl’s dreams, doesn’t he? But on the other hand he had a fierce temper, drank heavily and was obsessed with anything related to warfare. He also suffered from epilepsy. He came to rule Russia at a time of upheaval and uncertainty but was able to bring many reforms during his reign.
He was coerced by his mother Natalyia into marrying his first wife Eudoxia in 1689 when he was only 17. He cared nothing for her and deserted her after a year, declaring the marriage null and void years later and sending her to a nunnery.
Catherine was low-born, uneducated, but gentle and pretty. Her parents were killed by the plague and she was sent by an aunt to live with a pastor and serve as a housemaid for the family. When they feared their son might become involved with the beautiful housemaid she was married off to a Swedish dragoon. This lasted a matter of days until the Russians captured the town. Catherine was taken to the household of Prince Alexander Menshikov, best friend of Peter the Great, perhaps as housemaid, perhaps as mistress.
Peter met her while visiting and she became his mistress. He fell in love with her and wanted her as his wife. He married her privately in 1707. During the construction of St. Petersburg, he set Catherine up in a three room cabin, where they kept house as a normal family. She performed household duties and he looked after their garden. It seems to have been his respite. Catherine was the one person who could calm his wild rages and she looked after him when he had his epileptic seizures. Letters are still in existence that show them to have been a loving, affectionate couple. They had twelve children together but sadly, only two survived to adulthood.
She went with him on his military campaign in Turkey in 1711. According to Voltaire Catherine saved the day. When Peter's forces were surrounded by Turkish troops and about to surrender, Catherine took her jewels and those of the other ladies and was able to bribe officials into allowing a retreat.
Catherine and Peter were married officially in 1712 and she became Tsarina.
In 1724 at the creation of the empire, she was crowned Empress. Peter died a year later and Catherine ruled after his death with the support of the council until her own death. She was the first woman to rule Russia.
Peter’s grandson became Peter II.